A public records request seeking information about the potential use of surveillance technology spurred a lawsuit against the Albuquerque Police Department last week.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed the suit against APD in Albuquerque’s district court after the department refused to release policy information about the department’s possible use of devices capable of tracking and extracting data from cellphones.
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In response, APD said there were no records pertaining to how many cell site simulators often called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers or Stingrays, the department owned or used. But, APD officials also said any policies and procedures on collecting and storing data from personal cellphones is confidential and cannot be publicly released, and cited an Inspection of Public Records Request exemption. The exemption, the ACLU of New Mexico argued, narrowly exempts information about confidential sources and evidence, not general policies or guidelines.
ACLU of New Mexico spokesman Micah McCoy told NM Political Report that APD’s refusal to turn over records leaves some significant questions unanswered.
“We don’t even know if a warrant is required for the use of these things,” McCoy said.
McCoy acknowledged that the refusal to release the records doesn’t necessarily mean APD is using the tracking devices.
“I wouldn’t say it’s proof positive that they have them,” McCoy said.
Still, McCoy said, the group requested similar records from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office and the New Mexico State Police and both said they had no such records.
The ACLU has compiled a list of states and federal agencies that use Stingrays or IMSI catchers.
Stingrays mimic cell towers and force nearby cellphones to connect to the tracking device instead, possibly allowing law enforcement agents almost full access to data or location information from cellphones.
Given APD’s lack of responsiveness, McCoy said it’s unknown what procedures APD has in place for Stingrays or whether APD is inadvertently accessing information unrelated to police investigations.
APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza would not comment on the lawsuit, but said that “APD follows legal standards with the use of any technology.”
Espinoza added that “We hold ourselves to the highest standards concerning transparency.”